Roman Catholic Doctrine Examined: Faith and Good Works. By Joe Harper. Reformed Truther Ministries.
Updated: Sep 30
The Council of Trent was one of the most pivotal events in the history of Roman Catholicism. The canons of the council defined the theological direction of Roman Catholicism in ways that persist to this day. The Council condemned many Protestant doctrines including justification by faith alone and made the Roman Catholic understanding of justification by faith and good works the only acceptable view within Roman Catholicism. Trent was not merely a theological response to the Protestant Reformation but also a grudging recognition of the growth of the Protestant Reformation across Europe. Pope Paul III who called the council recognized that the Protestants were gaining influence and that the doctrines that they were preaching were being widely accepted across much of Europe. What is not widely known today is that even many members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy were giving consideration to Protestant ideas including Justification by faith alone leading up to the Council and at the Council itself.
Men such as Cardinal Reginal Pole, Cardinal Gasparo Contarini and Peter Martyr Vermigli were members of the Spirituali movement. The Spirituali movement was a reform movement within the Catholic Church which advocated spiritual revival, intense study of the Scriptures and emphasis of God’s grace and justification by faith alone. The movement was active from the 1530’s to the 1560’s and for a time was very prominent in Italy before finally being stamped out in Italy by the Inquisition. Cardinal Reginald Pole fled to England to escape the inquisition while Peter Martyr Vermigli fled to Geneva where he would join the Protestants. Cardinal Contrarini would eventually be murdered due to his concessions to Protestant thinking. Another prominent figure at the Council of Trent itself was Cardinal Girolamo Seripando. Seripando was the general of the order of Augustinians. He was respected within the Catholic Church and recognized as an excellent preacher and Bible scholar. Seripando was a Papal Legate at the council of Trent and a leader of a minority party at Trent which advocated for number of Protestant theological positions including the rejection of placing tradition as equal to Scripture, the rejection of the Apocrypha as canonical and justification by faith alone. Despite the prominence of Seripando the views he argued for would all finally be rejected and condemned by the council due largely to the labors of the Jesuit theologians Alfonso Salmeron and Diego Laynez. The debate within the Catholic Church at this time over justification by faith alone shows that prior to Trent the issue was far from settled. This historical information given above neither proves or disproves the doctrine of justification by faith alone but it does give important context to Rome’s rejection of the doctrine.
It could be argued that no point of doctrinal difference between Protestants and Roman Catholics is more profound or more important than the difference in views regarding the doctrine of justification. The view of justification by faith alone was one of the most fundamental doctrines of the Protestant Reformation and is as important today for Protestant Christians as it was five hundred years ago. The opposing Roman Catholic view of salvation being the result of both faith and good works which was formally declared at the council of Trent is still the express view of the Roman Catholic Church today. It’s vital for Christians to understand today that the doctrine of justification by faith alone which is at the heart of the biblical gospel is anathematized by the council of Trent and that believing it is a damnable offense according to the Roman Catholic Church. In this article I will document Rome’s rejection of justification by faith alone and define their understanding of justification by faith and good works. I will also explain the opposing protestant view of justification. I will show the Scriptural arguments for the correct understanding of justification and come to a final conclusion.
The Roman Catholic Understanding
As previously stated, justification by faith alone was anathematized by the canons of the council of Trent. Anathematized literally means cursed which shows that according Roman Catholic teaching that to believe this doctrine is heresy and will put someone in hell. This can be seen from a number of the canons of the council. Canon 9 states,
"If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema."
Canon 14 also states,
"If any one saith, that man is truly absolved from his sins and justified, because that he assuredly believed himself absolved and justified; or, that no one is truly justified but he who believes himself justified; and that, by this faith alone, absolution and justification are effected; let him be anathema."
Lastly Canon 30 states,
"If any one saith, that, after the grace of Justification has been received, to every penitent sinner the guilt is remitted, and the debt of eternal punishment is blotted out in such wise, that there remains not any debt of temporal punishment to be discharged either in this world, or in the next in Purgatory, before the entrance to the kingdom of heaven can be opened (to him); let him be anathema."
These Canons are and others similar to it have never been rescinded and show clearly Rome’s position on justification today. The referring to Protestants as separated brethren in the post Vatican II world has made some wonder whether there has been a softening of their condemnation of the Protestant view of justification. However, the statements of Vatican II in no way reflects a change on Roman Catholic theology on justification. The canons of Trent listed above show us Rome’s view of the protestant view of justification but does not explain the Roman Catholic view of justification.
Roman Catholic teaching on justification can be summarized under four main points. First that justification is a process. Second, that justification is a cooperation between God and man. Third that justifying grace is conveyed through the sacraments. Lastly, that justification can be lost. Justification being defined as a process starts with the distinguishing of initial justification which is conferred at either at conversion or at baptism and final justification which is revealed to the believer at judgement day. The catechism of the Catholic Church shows us the belief in initial justification. The Catholic Catechism 2010 says,
“Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life. Even temporal goods like health and friendship can be merited in accordance with God's wisdom. These graces and goods are the object of Christian prayer. Prayer attends to the grace we need for meritorious actions.”
This portion of the Catechism shows us the belief in that justification is a process and that Roman Catholics believe that their merits work toward the attainment of eternal life. This view of grace and merit are based upon the belief that justification is cooperation between God’s grace and Man’s cooperation with that grace through free will. The Catholic Catechism 1993 says,
“Justification establishes cooperation between God's grace and man's freedom. On man's part it is expressed by the assent of faith to the Word of God, which invites him to conversion, and in the cooperation of charity with the prompting of the Holy Spirit who precedes and preserves his assent”
This belief that justification is a cooperation between God and man or in other words that salvation is synergistic is arguably the most important difference from the Protestant view. Man’s cooperation in his salvation through free will is the foundation that leads one to believe that their works contribute to their salvation. This leads us to the third point that justifying grace is conferred through the sacraments. Roman Catholicism is inherently sacramental and participation in the sacraments is truly the center of the entire religious system. The Catholic Church teaches that the sacraments confer both justifying and sanctifying grace. Since justification is defined as a process the doctrines of justification and sanctification are conflated together. There are seven sacraments in Roman Catholicism. They are baptism, confirmation, the eucharist, penance, holy orders, matrimony and extreme unction. The sacraments are viewed as channels of efficacious grace which means that participating in the mass, going to confession and performing penance are key means of meriting justification. This leads me to the final point that justification can be lost. In Catholic theology there is a distinction between “venial” sins and “mortal” sins. Venial sins are often called daily sins these sins do not destroy sanctifying grace but they halt spiritual growth. Mortal Sins on the other hand are sins that destroy sanctifying grace and ultimately the soul itself. We must remember that justification and sanctification are conflated doctrines according to Roman Catholicism. Mortal Sin could be understood in modern terminology as grave sin. These sins if unconfessed will bar the sinner from heaven without exception. Mortal Sins include sexual immorality, murder, abortion, stealing, bearing false witness, atheism, apostasy and idolatry. The absolution of a priest returns the sinner to a state of grace but Penance is necessary for the removal of the penalty of sin. The conclusion of this is that there is uncertainty pertaining to the attainment of final justification and salvation. The Catholic system as all works-based religions do lead to either self-righteousness or despair.
The Protestant Understanding
As the Roman Catholic view of justification was summarized in four points so too can the Protestant view of justification by faith alone be summarized by four points. These points are first that justification is a once and for all time legal declaration made by God. Second that justification comes about as the work of God’s grace alone that leads to true faith of the saint. Third, good works demonstrate the grace of God at work in the saint and that he is truly a child of God but good works do not contribute in themselves towards salvation. Fourth, justification cannot be lost by the true believer.
The term justify means to make righteous. When God justifies a sinner, he declares the sinner in a legal sense to be righteous in the sight of God. Justification is based on the perfect righteousness and the perfect atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. When a believer places true faith in Jesus Christ the righteousness of Christ is imputed or bestowed to the believer. This is called the imputed righteousness of Christ. John Calvin states this clearly in his institutes.
“Justified by faith is he who, excluded from the righteousness of works, grasps the righteousness of Christ through faith, and clothed in it, appears in God’s sight not as a sinner but as a righteous man. Therefore we explain justification simply as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as righteous men. And we say that it consists in the remission of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.”
This leads to the second point that true faith is the work of God’s grace alone in heart of the sinner. The effects of original sin are that man is dead in trespasses and sins and his heart is completely wicked and in rebellion to the true and living God. This is referred to in Reformed Theology as Total Depravity. Man is therefore unable to come to God apart from the grace of God giving the sinner a new heart which allows him to have faith in Jesus Christ. This is in contrast to the Roman Catholic position that justification is a cooperation between God and Man. As the Roman Catholic position of salvation is synergistic the Protestant one is monergistic. The debate over man’s free will and participation in his salvation one of the key points of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther recognized this when speaking about free will to Erasmus. Luther commended Erasmus for recognizing that free will was the most important issue in the debate over salvation.
“I praise and commend you highly for this also, that unlike all the rest you alone have attacked the real issue, the essence of the matter in dispute, and have not wearied me with irrelevancies about the papacy, purgatory, indulgences, and such like trifles (for trifles they are rather than basic issues), with which almost everyone hitherto has gone hunting for me without success.”
Martin Luther recognized that the debate over free will showed as clearly as anything that a true salvation rested in a true understanding of both man’s sinful nature and the nature of God’s grace. This understanding of grace revealed that the good works of man had nothing to contribute in regards to a biblical view of justification. Good works instead merely were evidence of the work of the spirit of God in the life of a believer. Matthew 7:14-20 speaks on this point.
14 Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.
15 Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.
16 Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?
17 Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.
18 A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.
19 Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
20 Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.
This is understanding of good works leads to the Reformed distinction between those who profess to be followers of Christ and those who truly have saving faith. Reformed Theology teaches that many people who profess faith in Jesus Christ are in actuality self-deceived and have not had the saving work of God done in their heart. Matthew 7:21 states this,
21 Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.
22 Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?
23 And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.
24 Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock:
25 And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.
26 And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand:
The difference here between Reformed Theology and Roman Catholic Theology is that Reformed Theology teaches that those people who professed Christ but were not truly saved never were justified in any sense while Roman Catholics would say someone who professed faith and was not saved was initially justified but did not gain final justification. This leads to the final point is that justification cannot be lost by the true believer. The Bible teaches that a believer must persevere to the end of his life but Scripture also teaches that God promises that those who are his children will be kept by God in saving faith through his grace. Those who are true believers in Jesus Christ will not fall away from the faith.
The Testimony of Scripture
The doctrine of justification by faith alone is stated abundantly clear all throughout the Scriptures and especially throughout the New Testament. A number of passages of Scriptures will be listed with comments to show the overwhelming testimony of Scripture on justification and other relevant points discussed in the articles.
8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:
9 Not of works, lest any man should boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
This passage of Scripture shows that salvation is of God’s grace alone and separate from any cooperation by Man. Salvation is monergistic and is by God’s grace alone through faith alone.
21 But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets;
22 Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference:
23 For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;
24 Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus:
25 Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God;
26 To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.
27 Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith.
28 Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.
Justification is stated to be the result of faith in Jesus Christ. This is done without the deeds of the law or in other words keeping God’s commands a.k.a good works.
4 What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found?
2 For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God.
3 For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.
4 Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt.
5 But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. (Romans 4:1-5)
When Abraham believed it was accounted to him for righteousness. The Apostle Paul rejects the claim that Abraham was justified by works.
5 Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: (Romans 5:1)
Once again justification by faith.
16 Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. (Galatians 2:16)
The Apostle Paul clearly condemns the notion of justification by faith alone.
These passages are not exhaustive but clearly show the teaching of Scripture on justification by faith alone. Roman Catholics would argue that these passages are being taken out of context and also that these passages do not reflect the fullness of Scripture. Roman Catholics would turn to the Epistle of James in particular to try to show that good works are necessary for justification. James 2:14-26 says,
14 What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?
15 If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food,
16 And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?
17 Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.
18 Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.
19 Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.
20 But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?
21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?
22 Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?
23 And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God.
24 Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.
25 Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?
26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
The passage in James does indeed speak of works but it is regardless being misinterpreted by Roman Catholics. James here is simply stating that good works reveal those who have true faith and not merely a false profession. When interpreting Scripture, the unclear portions must be interpreted in light of the clear ones and what James intends here when properly understood perfectly harmonizes with the passages of Scripture by Paul listed above. Even James himself says that Abraham’s belief in God which happened years before his offering up of Isaac was imputed to him for righteousness. Abraham was justified by God at the time of his conversion which was before the offering up of Isaac. Abraham’s obedience to God or good works showed that his faith was genuine. The theologian Louis Berkhof eloquently explains how James writing here relates to Paul’s teaching on justification.
“It is often said, however, that the teachings of James conflict with those of Paul on this point, and clearly support the doctrine of justification by works in Jas. 2:14-26. Various attempts have been made to harmonize the two. Some proceed on the assumption that both Paul and James speak of the justification of the sinner, but that James stresses the fact that a faith which does not manifest itself in good works is no true faith, and therefore is not a faith that justifies. This is undoubtedly true. The difference between the representations of Paul and James is unquestionably due partly to the nature of the adversaries with which they had to deal. Paul had to contend with legalists who sought to base their justification, at least in part, on the works of the law. James, on the other hand, joined issue with Antinomians, who claimed to have faith, but whose faith was merely an intellectual assent to the truth (2:19), and who denied the necessity of good works. Therefore he stresses the fact that faith without works is a dead faith, and consequently not at all a faith that justifies. The faith that justifies is a faith that is fruitful in good works. But it may be objected that this does not explain the whole difficulty, since James explicitly says in verse 24 that a man is justified by works and not only by faith, and illustrates this by the example of Abraham, who was “justified by works in that he offered up Isaac” (verse 21). “Thou seest,” says he in verse 24, “that faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect.” It is quite evident, however, that in this case the writer is not speaking of the justification of the sinner, for Abraham the sinner was justified long before he offered up Isaac (cf. Gen. 15), but of a further justification of the believing Abraham. True faith will manifest itself in good works, and these works will testify before men of the righteousness (that is, the righteousness of life) of him that possesses such a faith.”
The Roman Catholic doctrine of justification by faith and good works has been shown to be defined as a process where God and man cooperate together for salvation. The sacraments are believed to confer grace and that mortal sins that are not confessed can lead to the loss of salvation. In contrast the Protestant view of justification by faith alone was shown to be a legal declaration by God. God’s grace alone which leads to true faith in Jesus Christ results in justification which cannot be lost. The testimony of Scripture overwhelmingly supports the Protestant position. Roman Catholics must realize that the belief of justification by faith and good works is unbiblical and destroys the true gospel of Jesus Christ. To believe in justification by faith alone is anathema according to Roman Catholic teaching. Therefore, any Roman Catholics who wish to believe the true gospel and honor Jesus Christ must come out of the Roman Catholic Church and be separate. For Protestants and in particular Evangelicals there must be a realization that there can be no unity with Rome because Roman Catholicism and Protestantism have completely different understandings of the gospel. Any Ecumenical joining together of Protestants and Roman Catholics is sinful and leads to confusion and apostasy. The doctrine of justification is the heart of true Christianity and there can be no compromise on this most crucial of doctrines.
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Endnotes  The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent  The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent  The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent  Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Edition,   Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Edition,   John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.11.2, trans. Henry Beveridge, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, 2008)  Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation p. 333, (The Westminster Press)  Louis Berkhof Systematic Theology p. 521, (Carlisle PA, Banner of Truth Trust, 2012)
Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin
Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation
Systematic Theology by Louis Berkhof
The Church of Rome at the Bar of History by William Webster